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Mark O’Sullivan On Dialogue

Writing.ie | Resources | Writing Dialogue
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Mark O'Sullivan

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There’s a growing consensus these days in the neuromusicological world that music is about anticipation. The well-worked composition, whatever the style or genre, satisfies the listener’s expectations for onward momentum, flow and directedness. If our ear is sufficiently catholic, we can appreciate a piece even if we don’t especially like it. What we can’t do is like it if it doesn’t make some kind of sense to us melodically, rhythmically or structurally. The thing, in other words, has in some way to sing.

In this broader sense of the musical, the written too should sing. Nowhere more so than in dialogue which (even, I would suggest, in a first-person narrative) is of all the elements, closest to the ‘sung’. A tin ear for dialogue and a poor grasp of its possibilities and limitations, expose the writer more even than lumpen prose does. We, somehow, distrust the writer who consistently fails on this front. We suspect a lack of honesty, of effort – ultimately, of talent. While we can acknowledge that few writers instinctively possess the art of dialogue, we are slow to forgive those who don’t at least try to develop the craft of written conversational exchange. But how to do this? We all dive into these deep waters at different angles but, for what it’s worth, here’s my suggestion. Go naked.

mark o'sullivanBack in the early 2000s, I was thinking, fantasising, prevaricating about writing a work of historical fiction. I’d gathered the material and was trying to decide on my approach to the subject. What I imagined was some kind of blend of the exotic and the restrained, the wild and the bleak – a mad world and a man trying to keep his head together in it. I was after the colour and passion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Cormac McCarthy’s solitary, almost inarticulate, maleness. The impossible pursued by the unlikely, you might say. Anyway, among the decisions I took was, like McCarthy (if less spare and more emotive), to write unattributed dialogue. In other words, no ‘he said’, ‘she said’. And especially, no ‘he said loudly’, ‘she said softly’. It wasn’t easy and whether the novel (‘Enright’ – Blackstaff Press 2005) or the ‘spoken’ element succeeded is not for me to judge. In any case, I believe it taught me a great deal about writing dialogue.

The symptoms of weak dialogue are many – and very easily slipped back into in spite of what’s been learned to which I can fully attest. Blandness, monotony, formality, information-overload, prolixity, unlikeliness, cliched phrases, p.c speak. I could go on. Casting off the vestiges of attribution and explication focuses the writer on the real challenge of dialogue. In sum, this challenge consists of getting the personality, intonation, meaning and mood into the ‘spoken’ lines. Another instance of ‘show not tell’, if you like. All of which sounds like a bit of a tall order but comes down essentially to truly defining your character in terms of disposition, inflection and speech rhythms.

The most direct way to achieve true and honest dialogue is through the appreciation of accent. It’s the syntactical idiosyncracies that arise from a person’s accent that flavour speech. The further you stray from the familiar patois of your surroundings, the more work you’ll need to put in to make it real. Roddy Doyle’s dialogue is not only quintessentially Dublin for those familiar with the accent but, because it rings true as real speech, it works for readers everywhere. On this foundation of accent, a character’s intonation and disposition are achieved with an enviable facility that leaves attribution and explication virtually redundant.

In the absence of true accent as, for example, in most genre writing, deep characterisation tends to suffer and different strategies are required. Here, the human and the voice are somehow detached and the gap needs to be filled with passion and wit. I mean the interest and intensity of the dilemma presented and the intensity of the character’s engagement with it – and the occasional deflating of that tension with the phlegmatic, the philosophical, the comic or wherever your inclination lies. In terms of dialogue, this entails building the character’s speech on tone and mood. The McCarthy method is, I believe a vital factor in learning to raise the genre novel’s game. Which leads me to Elmore Leonard.

Long before McCarthy, the tightness and concision of Leonard’s novels owed a great deal to his culling of the ‘he said’, ‘she said cruelly’ assists. He was dead nuts too on alternative assists such as ‘he barked’, ‘she moaned’. Of course, there’s no extreme injunction in Leonard’s work. A balance of judicious use of speech attribution and explication was his way. Judicious being the operative word and the more hard-headed the judgement, he insisted, the better the result. This doesn’t mean that your dialogue needs to become an endless exchange of one-liners. It can still carry its fair share of information, plot and character development. Ultimately, the more you focus on how your character speaks, the more you will get to know and understand that character and learn to make her say what needs to be said, no less and no more. The goal of reaching simplicity is a complex but, I would suggest, an entirely necessary one.

So, to quote Albert Einstein (out of context admittedly), the bottom line here is – “Everything must be kept as simple as possible. But no simpler.”

(c) Mark O’Sullivan

About the author

Mark O’Sullivan has published three pre-teen, four Young Adult and three adult novels. His most recent work is in the adult crime fiction genre. He has won two Reading Association of Ireland biennial awards, the Eilis Dillon/Bisto Book of the Year Award and three Bisto Merit awards. His novels have been translated into six languages and he has received the Prix des Loisirs (France) as well as two White Raven Book (European Libraries) Awards. In addition he has written radio drama for RTE and contributed to Lyric FM’s ‘Quiet Corner’. He has also won some short story prizes as well as publishing poems in Poetry Ireland, Poetry Australia, Poetry Wales, The Honest Ulsterman and various other periodicals.

He has twice been on the judging panel for the Bisto Book Awards (Irish-authored children’s books). His work has been excerpted for use in the Junior Cert English exam. His publishers have included Wolfound Press, Merlin, Macmillan, Blackstaff, Puffin Ireland and Transworld.

Mark is married with two daughters and lives in Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

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